What is Incarnational Theology?
Theologically speaking Michael Murray and Michael Rea explain that “the doctrine of the Incarnation holds that, at a time roughly two thousand years in the past, the second person of the trinity took on himself a distinct, fully human nature” (1). Thus, the result is that Jesus was a single person in full possession of two distinct natures: one human and one divine. According to the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) the divine nature of the Son was united but not mixed with human nature in one divine Person, Jesus Christ, who was both “truly God and truly man.” The council acknowledges that God manifested in Jesus “in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation… [with] each distinctive character of each nature being preserved.”
However, critics have held this concept to be incoherent. Thomas Morris explains that some have contended the doctrine to be “impossible, self-contradictory, incoherent, absurd, and even unintelligible” (2). The difficulty proposed is that it seems to attribute to a human being characteristics that do not seem to be logically compatible. For instance, it seems on one hand that humans are necessarily created beings and therefore they are limited in power, knowledge and so forth. Alternatively God, or divine beings, are generally believed to be the opposite of these things. It has been contended that a person could possess both human and divine natures only if he could be both limited and unlimited, created and uncreated, and so on. These characterises would seem to be incompatible. However, there are two responses to this contention in the form of the two-minds theory and the kenotic theory models.
The kenotic view (from kenosis which is a Greek word meaning ’to empty’) is argued to be supported by the Apostle Paul in a New Testament verse claiming that Jesus “…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death…” (Phillipians 2:6–8). This theory holds that Jesus, God the Son, willingly and temporarily disinvested himself of his divine attributes so that he could take on a fully human nature. In this way something can still be divine even though it disinvests itself of characteristics traditionally identified with divinity such as omnipotence (all powerful), omnipresence (all present), omniscience (all knowing) etc (the “omni-properties”). One critique of this view is that are we even able to actually call Jesus “divine” if he does not posses this omni-properties? Especially since divinity is defined in accordance with such properties.
Some have responded in noting that God does possess such omni-properties unless he temporarily and freely chooses to be otherwise. This enables the omni-properties to be upheld without contradiction even when certain powers are laid aside. Thus, as Feenstra explains (3), Jesus is free to disinvest himself of some of his powers to become fully human while still remaining fully divine. For further reading of this view one would do well to engage Feenstra’s work (4). Moreover, Crisp identifies a “functional kenosis” (5). Here Jesus still possesses all of the traditional divine attributes although, from Jesus’ point of view, it is as if those attributes are gone. Therefore, Jesus’ loss of divine attributes is only an illusion. However, this, one might realise, could raise the question over Jesus’ moral perfection as this view might entail that the incarnation itself was somehow an illusion or a deception.
Alternatively, there is the two minds theory developed by Thomas Morris. Morris argues that one should think of Jesus’ incarnation as the realization of one person with two minds (a human mind and a divine mind). He proposed that if possession of a human mind and body are the basis for something being human, then it can be that combining the divine mind with a human mind and attaching both to a human body will produce one person with two natures. This view, according to Morris, was that while Jesus existed as a human being on Earth he had two minds. The human mind had limited access to the contents of the divine mind whereas God the Son’s divine mind had full access to the human mind. Murray and Rea explain that a difficulty of the two mind theory is that of Nestorianism. Nestorianism was a heretical view condemned by the church since it held that there are two persons in the incarnate Jesus. This is because one may tend to identify persons with minds or that the number of minds would equal the number of persons. The problem that this proposes for Jesus is that it leads to the incarnation giving us two persons in Jesus. it would seem that Jesus would be victimised by a kind multiple personality disorder. Murray and Rea, however, explain that “one might note that contemporary psychology seems to provide resources which support the viability of the two minds model… the human mind is sometimes characterized as a system of somewhat autonomous subsystems. The normal human mind, for example, includes (on these characterizations) both a conscious mind (the seat of awareness) and an unconscious mind. It does not really matter for present purposes whether this psychological story is correct; the point is just that it seems coherent, and seems neither to involve multiple personality nor to imply that what seems to be a single subject is, in reality, two distinct persons.”
The Importance of Incarnational Theology.
The incarnation has obvious importance for Christians. It is important for our relationship with God since it shows that human beings can be intellectually united with God (6). In this way, explains Bob Deffinbaugh, the incarnation reveals God to man through the person, works, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (7). It also demonstrates that that God identifies with our our struggles and pains which, in turn, lifts up man in times of turmoil while also providing man with hope. We do not believe in a God that is far removed from us but who is said to be close to each one of us (Acts 17: 27). Secondly, it is also necessary for our salvation as “only Jesus Christ, who is the God-man, is able to reconcile a holy God with sinful humanity” (7). This view seems to be well grounded in our gospel accounts (Mark 10:45, Matthew 9:13, Luke 19:10), Pauline epistles (Galatians 4:4-5), inauthentic Pauline epistles (1 Tim 1:15), and New Testament (Hebrews 9: 22, 1 John 4:10). Deffinbaugh warns that “Once the doctrine of the incarnation is set aside, the whole matter of redemption through the person and work of Christ is scuttled.” This is why, explains Hanegraaff, “The doctrine of the Incarnation touches and affects virtually every single area of Christian theology.”
1. Murray, M. & Rea, M. 2002. Philosophy and Christian Theology. Available.
2. Morris, T. 1986. The Logic of God Incarnate. p. 18.
3. Feenstra, R. 1989. Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement. p. 128-152.
4. Feenstra, R. 2007. Incarnation. p. 539.
5. Crisp, O. 2007. Divinity and Humanity. Chapter 2.
6. Jacques Maritain Center. Of the Incarnation as part of the Fitness of Things. Available.
7. Deffinbaugh, D. 2004. The Importance of the Incarnation. Available.
8. Hanegraaff, H. 2009. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Available.